"Last Christmas I gave you my art / and the very next day you didn't press play / So this year I made a record for you / [long pause] holy shit, from a secular Jew!"
Yes, Jason "Chilly Gonzales" Beck, the Montreal- and Toronto-raised pianist who once declared himself a Jewish supervillain and president of the "Berlin Underground," has released a A Very Chilly Christmas, a solo piano album of minor-key Christmas carols along with covers of David Berman, Wham and Mariah Carey; it's accompanied by a considerably less sombre mixtape with Toddla T (the source of the above quote). But that's not all: the current resident of Köln has also written a book-length essay about a woman who once sang in Elvish.
Enya: A Treatise on Unguilty Pleasures has been published in German, French, and in English by Rough Trade UK and Canada's Invisible Publishing as part of their Bibliophonic series. It's only partially about Enya; it's also about ego, namely Beck's, and about music as social function, like the lullabies that populate Enya's blockbuster albums and Gonzales's Solo Piano albums. It's a variation on Carl Wilson's game-changing Céline Dion book, Let's Talk About Love, though much more informal—and funny, though just as earnest. Both books aim to reclaim their subjects from punchline purgatory. For me, Enya seems to be an easier case to make: see also Jenn Pelly's excellent piece in Pitchfork this year.
2020 also marks 20 years since the debut Gonzales album, Uber Alles, which launched a series of events that enabled the success of his friends Peaches and Feist. We talked about that in a separate conversation, but you'll have to wait for my book to read that.
My 2008 conversation with Gonzales is one of my favourites; it can be found here.
This conversation took place last month, but because I don't want to think about Christmas until it's time for partridges in pear trees, I present it to you now, during Hanukkah.
November 6, 2020
Does the world needs Enya more than ever now?
It seems so. When most records come out, we’re constantly reminded of the personality of the artist and their singular point of view, especially in rap songs. All the words we use to describe music have so much to do with the artist’s POV. We forget that music before that had no POV, it had a collective POV, and Enya is closer to that than many other artists at their level. I love the idea of what folk music is, a kind of music where you don’t hear the word “I”—and you don’t hear the word “I” in Enya songs. Her melodies don’t have a lot of twists and turns and signatures. I struggle with it, because my ego is so ever-present in my music and I try to put it to good use. But I’m fascinated with music in which there isn’t that, where the composer isn’t present—to paraphrase Marina Abramovich.
Solo Piano wasn’t intended to be functional hipster dinner party music, but you’re often quoted as being fine if it’s accepted as such. There is a letting go of your own work. Background music serves a social purpose. In the same way Enya’s does.
Yeah, and it makes me think of my background as a bar pianist, or a lingerie store pianist, or these more humble background-music jobs I had.
Where was that? In Montreal, or Toronto? Berlin?
A lot in Toronto. A bit in Montreal. I did a lot of it when I graduated from McGill and moved back to Toronto, before my band Son kicked off. That was a two- or three-year period of constant jobbing, including at a Yorkville lingerie store called Andrew’s, where I was the pianist. It was really interesting. The owner was like, ‘Hey, I know it’s not Carnegie Hall here.’ Part of me was like, ‘Believe me, I know.’ But at the same time, it dawned on me that I didn’t need it to be Carnegie Hall. For about two years in Berlin, before I could make a living as Chilly Gonzales, from about 1998 to 2001, I had a job playing in a restaurant around the corner from where I lived. It’s a great job to have when you don’t speak the language in the country to which you’ve moved.
When some people might approach me and say, ‘Hey, are you okay with your music being used as background music?’ I speak of the moment when Thomas Bangalter of Daft Punk used Solo Piano to get his baby to sleep. I thought, not only is my music useful, it’s useful to one of my heroes. That was a really nice moment. I do think it’s possible to make music that works on all those different levels. And a third level, which is playing sheet music. That is the most intimate way of interacting with the composer, because the music is literally coming through you.
[In 2014, Gonzales published Re-Introduction Etudes, sheet music for lapsed pianists. It became a bestseller. I was just given a copy for Hanukkah, and I'm hard at work.]
Close headphone listening, or listening while doing dishes, or as a sex soundtrack—there are so many wonderful activities in which music can play a role. It’s quite humbling to own up to that. Music that can only be appreciated when you listen closely to it—I mean, who has that kind of time these days? I don’t. A lot of albums I find interesting, like that last Fiona Apple album I thought was really interesting, but I didn’t have any social use for it, personally. For my taste, it’s too much, it demands too much of my attention, and nor is it the kind of music I would put on when I need energy—that’s when I’ll use rap music and listen very closely and get a vicarious energy through what the rapper is saying, and the beat.
The balance of ego and generosity: for any musician, unless you’re a prodigy and then become a superstar, there’s an inherent humbling at every step of the way, whether it’s the early humiliation of playing your original material to nobody, or serving a function, whether it’s jobbing in a wedding band or teaching music to disinterested children.
Or playing in a punk band! Which is another functional thing I learned, when I joined the Shit [in 1995 with Peaches]. That was my introduction to “the hang” being most important, not just between the band members themselves, but with the audience. If you go to a great all-ages punk show, there is a huge amount of egoless solidarity. Or a rave. I’m jealous of that yes-or-no success threshold for stand-up comedy, because it’s so clear: if it works, people are laughing. My DJ friends, I’m envious of them—even though I tease them by telling them they’re not musicians—because through the playing of music they are also creating a social function that mirrors what folk music did back in the day.
The only genre where that isn’t the case is the one I’m in, which is personality-based, artist music, where we’re all hoping to be taken seriously as these forward-thinking, free artists. It’s a real trope, one I sometimes fall into, and one I make fun of by calling myself a musical genius. I try to take the piss out of the whole idea of what a genius is. When you’re a folk musician, I don’t think anyone thinks in those terms. The [idea of the] musical genius was more or less invented in Europe, somewhere between Beethoven and Liszt, and continues to this day to Kanye West and “stable genius” ex-president Trump—it feels good to say that! I think Enya is much closer to that. I highly doubt she thinks of herself as a genius, or even wants to be called one.
But we’ll never know, because she never speaks! I take issue with part of your thesis. I don’t know that the guilty pleasure still exists. I feel that’s been chipped away for the last 20 years. Do people still feel guilty?
I would say so. So much of my book reflects the fact that my young musical adulthood was in the ’90s when there was a divide. That’s why I’m talking about Pavement, which is almost quaint to think about. I think there has been generational change. In my anecdotal milieu, people talk about it in terms of TV shows, in terms of liking bad TV. Or they say, ‘These are the novels I read when I’m on holiday, they’re a guilty pleasure.’ Or with food. In a way, the concept is still there.
Maybe in music, through whatever the poptimism movement was supposed to be, I’m not sure, which I think involves not putting mainstream pop music in a different category. In a way, that’s still playing into the same idea. It’s saying, ‘We’re not going to exclude pop music from cool stuff anymore; we’ll include it.’ Which means there is still stuff on the other side of that line—what, exactly, we don’t know. But it has to do with only young pop people who dare to work with cool producers get included in that. So a very mainstream pop person might be considered cheezy, and they only get included in the cool club when they work with Ariel Reichstad or whomever.
Perhaps the last uncool thing is, for lack of a better term, white-trash stadium country music. There are a bunch of class and racial reasons why that is.
I know a lot of people who look down on David Guetta and that world, very mainstream dance anthems, which tend to be more earnest. The less winking there is, you have to see if you pass some kind of smell test for the gatekeepers. So yes, I agree that the guilty pleasure is not as pronounced and obvious as the era in which I was struggling with it. I’ve gotten over it, and I bet you have too. I quote Dev Hynes who, when asked about his guilty pleasure, challenged the premise of the question. He said, ‘I’ll say Cyndi Lauper, but it’s not guilt, it’s just pleasure.’
I don’t think I’m radical by saying, ‘I’m enlightened! I can enjoy what I enjoy and never apologize for it ever again!’ That’s not the point of my book. It’s more of a journey for me to find out who I was. I had so many false stops along the way. First I got hoodwinked by virtuosity, then I got hoodwinked by trying to be cool. I went through all these phases. Some people have said I’m very hard on all the musicians I used to like, and therefore I’m hard on myself by admitting to being taken in by charlatans—and I don’t mean Charlatans the band. But now, I can be sitting in the hotel bath after the concert, with a joint, and I’ll think, ‘Ah, in the last three minutes of that one song I tried to somehow impress people rather than connect with them.’ I still fall into that trap. I’m by no means pure. I still fear the gods of music and their judgment more than ever, because I know I can easily slip.
My first love was ABBA, and I never turned my back on that. That went through years of not being cool depending on what circles I was in, then they had a couple of revivals, but that music has always given me intense pleasure, and it has my entire life. Did you read Carl Wilson’s Céline Dion book?
I’m aware of the book, and I read it after I finished mine. We actually went to McGill at the same time. He wrote for the school paper. His gang was in a slight rivalry with my gang, in a weird way. Since then, we’ve been writing each other on Twitter and I asked for his address so I could send him a book. But yes, his book is wonderful. It’s a different topic, in a way, but comes down to a lot of the same issues. When you say you like something, where is that really coming from? Is that a deep-seeded pre-taste mindset? Like, when you fell in love with ABBA, was that before you knew what musical taste was?
I was 10.
Right. So there’s something incredibly pure and innocent about your love for them. The fact you never turned your back on them, means that you were probably a more secure person than I was. Especially in my teens, I had a lot of issues of not being sure about what I liked. Whereas [frequent collaborator of 25+ years] Mocky, when I met him when he was 19 or 20, his taste was fully formed. It’s the same today. His music evolves, he finds new music to love, but his criteria is solid. It might have to do with personality.
There was something shape-shifty about my personality back then. I was so desperate to be liked and to fit in, that it took me a while. When I moved to Berlin [in 1999], it gave me that last push, where if I was actually going to continue doing this, I had to have the balls to put all these things together that, on paper, seem like they won’t work. Of course they work, because they’re all me. I can put the sense of humour together with my studious musicality. I don’t talk often about why I love rap has so much to do with my dad, and his capitalist-revenge-fantasy mindset. Essentially, my father has the attitude of a rapper. He grew up very, very poor and wanted to prove that he could be upwardly mobile.
What was his profession?
He started as an engineer, and he’s now a huge real estate business man in Canada. He’s retired now, but he was the CEO. It was a real rags-to-riches, Get Rich Or Die Trying kind of story. That’s what I think makes me love rap so much. The other side, I love the reassuring, feminine-style music with maternal voices. I know now where those twin obsessions come from. The Enya book is more about the mother’s side, but if you scan my lyrics there are a lot of references to my dad, and his effect on my aesthetics and my personality.
It took me a really long time. I try to be gentle. I try to have some sympathy for who I was then, and how I could allow myself to say, ‘I’m going to reinvent myself as someone who likes Pavement.’ That was a conscious decision based on not being able to own my own taste yet. I was a late bloomer. In [2002's] ‘Salieri Serenade,’ I have a lyric that is key to my harshness, in which I say, “I’m going to persecute all musical prostitutes / I know a ton of ’em / I used to be one of ’em / So now I make fun of ’em.” That’s where I’m at. I’m telling my conversion story. Much like you might read those books like, ‘I used to be a white supremacist and now I’m out of jail and organizing in the inner-city.’ It’s one of those kind of memoirs.
One of my favourite lines in the book is that, ‘Art suffers if you like everything. Taste is what you hate.’ Framing your taste in the negative.
That gives you power. When you like everything, the power of those choices becomes diluted, because you’re theoretically open to everything. It’s fundamentally coming from a position of weakness: ‘Well, who am I to say?’ We all know people like that, who don’t want you to say bad things about anyone. They think that to say anything bad is, in itself, not constructive. But it can give you power. Enya’s refusal to have drums is linked to her refusal to go on tour. My refusal to use electronics on stage is akin to me refusing to go on a TV show and give a music lesson to a cheezy host. That’s inspired by artists like Enya. You hear, in her music and in the way she runs her career, that she’s built these fortified walls, and everything inside her fortress is lovely and protected. The walls keep out beats and pressure to go on tour.
And interest in her personal life.
Exactly. I noticed it living in France. Maybe because French music always focuses on the lyrics first, they’re a very literary culture. That’s why there is not a lot of groovy French music. Not a lot of exuberant, simple pop. Gainsbourg was such an anomaly because of that, because he could just write a song where he says “toot-toot-toot” over and over again. He had a feel for what sounds good. Generally, the French are on the outside looking in at British and American styles of music. I would meet these French musicians and they just loved everything. They would be like, ‘Reggae! I can play that. Bossa nova! I can play that.’ I was like, ‘Well, you must hate something. It doesn’t make sense to love everything.’
I want to talk about texture, because this is fascinating to me. I was Enya agnostic; I didn’t think enough about her to hate her. You and I are roughly the same age. I liked “Orinoco Flow” well enough at the time, and I, like you, had access in high school to a Roland D-50 where that string sound is right there. As I got older, the sound of the Roland D-50 became kryptonite to me, the DX-7 as well. Textually, I just find them grating. I have friends who recoil at the sound of a tabla, or the guy in your book who, like me, hates the vibraphone. Certain textures prevent me from entering into the world of Milt Jackson or Enya, aesthetic decisions that are independent from all the other issues you’re talking about.
Also, I’ve always loved Julee Cruise, which might be some bullshit hipster association with David Lynch, but after reading your book I wondered: why do I love that Julee Cruise record [1989's Floating Into the Night, featuring the Twin Peaks' theme, 'Falling'] but I don’t care about Enya? Is it just because there’s no Roland D-50?
I could have written a book about that Julee Cruise album too, to be honest. Or Cocteau Twins or Beach House or Lana Del Rey. There’s a lot of music that’s similar, but Enya just felt right—even though I’m not that big a fan of her music compared to some of those others. I probably listened to Julee Cruise more than Enya, when all is said and done.
But it’s fascinating that a piece of technology—whether it’s physical, like a vibraphone, or electronic, like a DX-7—can carry these associations for us to the point where we can be blocked [as a listener]. As a piano player, when you play covers on the piano, you divorce them from all of that. Sometimes people get a clearer shot at what the music is capable of when you remove those [production choices].
Case in point, I just did a Christmas album and I do a version of ‘Last Christmas’ by Wham. As people start to hear the album, people are really singling that out, saying, ‘I never knew what a beautiful, bittersweet little lullaby “Last Christmas” is.’ Because they’re picturing [Wham!’s] Christmas sweaters, they’re hearing the SPX90 that’s doing the reverb on George Michael’s voice—a very specific ’80s reverb that everybody knows, consciously or unconsciously. I took away the drum machine, the cheezy synths. People couldn’t get a clear shot of what the melody and harmony was until they hear an instrument like the piano—which of course is not an instrument of pure reduction, pure atomic musicality, not quite the instrument that shows us the Platonic world of forms, but it’s the closest we have. It divorces all reference to the real world, and you end up in this abstract world and you get a different version of ‘Last Christmas,’ which is the opposite of how it usually works with Christmas carols.
If I ask you right now to think of ‘Silent Night,’ you don’t think of one particular recording. You think of some Platonic version that only exists in your mind, and you will now hear all future and past versions that exist in the real world, whether it’s carollers on your doorstep, or the version of it on my album. It’s always being compared to this abstract, ur-text version of ‘Silent Night.’ With ‘Last Christmas,’ it’s the opposite: all we have in mind are the references. So I’ve taken that all away and showing what was lurking beneath the whole time. It’s an interesting reaction that surprised me, how much people are able to re-evaluate a song like ‘Last Christmas’ when it’s played on the piano with very little stylistic liberties taken. I play a lot of songs in a minor key, interpolating them with other carols. But with those two—Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’ being the other—I play them so straight, so respectfully, because I wanted to make sure there was no chance people thought I was making fun of them. On the contrary, I’m venerating them.
Is that not a common trope: to take an overproduced song, strip it down to acoustic guitar,
and now it’s so-called “real music”? Like Ryan Adams doing his Taylor Swift
thing, or any acoustic cover of a pop song going back to at least Frenté.
That’s different because there are voices. The voices will always colour it. The voice is another stylistic exercise. On the piano you get closer to the purity.
What I find more interesting about your record is the seasonal affective disorder element of it, by making the traditional carols minor. That completely changes the meaning of the song. I’ve seen you do that exercise live before, where you take a well-known major-key song and make it minor. It’s usually ‘Jingle Bells,’ isn’t it?
I do a few. ‘Happy Birthday,’ ‘Frere Jacques.’ It can apply to any happy song.
In the context of this record, I find it much more fascinating. This could be hold music for a suicide hotline.
I recorded and planned the release before the pandemic, but it turns out events are making it seem more prescient.
The decision to do that to the traditional songs is more illuminating than a straight-forward ‘Last Christmas.’
The more well-known and universal the song is, the more it has lived in the collective unconscious. The more liberties I can take. Then there were exceptions. I wondered what trap I could fall into by doing standards. How can I bring these more recent pop songs, which do have the word I in them, and by playing them on piano I could minimize the I. In my version, I try to make you not think about Mariah Carey or George Michael, and let you hear the pure musical intentions. I don’t think you get that with the trend you’re talking about, a trend I really don’t like, of the bossa-nova versions by Nouvelle Vague, or when Richard Thompson did a very earnest version of ‘Oops I Did It Again.’ I feel you’re just replacing one trope with another by that point, because you’re framing the song in a very personal style. That’s why I try to play those songs as impersonally as possible, to avoid falling into that trap. I’m not trying to make it my own; I’m trying to make it your own.
A bit off topic, have you heard the Karen O and Willie Nelson version of ‘Under Pressure’ that just came out?
I think it’s one of the best covers I’ve ever heard. It’s two acoustic guitars, and she sings most of it and he sings the Bowie part. I’ve always loved that song but was too distracted by the greatest male vocal duet in history to notice the lyrics. With this version, they’re both incredible singers for different reasons.
That’s a good example of where with ‘Last Christmas,’ you’re distracted by the kitsch, in ‘Under Pressure’ you were distracted by the voices. That song has an unusual structure, instead of a typical A/B/A/B/bridge structure. I have played that on piano many times; it was a commonly requested song when I was a bar pianist, when I often faked my way through any request. As you’re playing songs, you’re like, ‘Oh my goodness!’ When you play a Pet Shop Boys song on piano you realize how complicated it is, how many key changes there are, and extra bars you didn’t realize were there. The sophistication is so hidden and buried in music like that, and ‘Under Pressure,’ when you sit down to play it, you think, ‘Where is this going?!’ There is very little repetitive scenery to anchor you. You can permit yourself to do that when you have two of the greatest male voices of your generation. I’m curious to hear how it sounds stripped down with those two legends.
In the Enya book, you talk about your friend the 4 Non-Blonde fan claiming that band’s hit song is ‘so bad it’s good.’ I wonder if that concept still exists.
Reality TV occupies that space for a lot of people.
Sure, but just talking about music here. I once had to learn ‘We Built This City’ for a wedding band. One of the most horrific recordings of all time, but having to learn how to play it, I gained a lot of odd respect for it.
Have you heard the Diplomats do that? They’re the last gasp of New York hip-hop in the early 2000s, led by Cam’ron, and with my personal favourite rapper, Juels Santana. They didn’t have that many hits, but in the rap world they’re untouchable, very ahead of their time, stylistically, visually. Their music is quite epic, and they have an epic version of ‘We Built This City.’ I’ll send it to you, as revenge for you telling me about the Karen O and Willie Nelson cover.
Back to the evolution of one’s taste, do you disown things you once loved? Can you listen to Chick Corea today?
I will get a minimal nostalgic thrill, but I don’t like it in the way I like music today, no. I do hear that it displeases the gods of music. I feel strongly about that now. Of course we all put our personality and our ego into the creative things we make; that is the modern definition of the artist, since we’ve had a word for it. People created stuff before, but they didn’t have a sense of ownership over the things they made. There was a feeling of craftsmanship involved, of social function.
Maybe it’s my age, or the
phase I’m in, or the year we’ve had, maybe it’s the pleasure I get from doing
projects like the Gonzervatory, that more and more I start to think I’m never
going to surgically remove my ego. It’s too late for that. But I can try to get
closer. I’m never going to be perfect, I’m too fundamentally selfish. But until
my dying day now, I’m going to try to push a bit closer to all these different
signposts, whether it’s what I see in Enya and how she runs her career and
protects her songs to the degree that makes me feel ashamed about how I sell my
songs in multiple different ways, and so it inspires me.
I use the word ‘balls’ a lot in the book, but I hope I grow Enya-size balls in the coming years. Reflecting on folk music of the past and reading about how music was made, and understanding the role of craftsmanship, making sure my ego can find its proper place in what I’m doing and not necessarily totally dominate.
Chilly’s cojones. That’s what you’re looking for.
Tangent: I was listening to Nina Simone’s To Love Somebody today, for the first time. I’m a big fan, but I’d never heard that entire album before. It struck me what a lost era it is, when an artist of Simone’s stature would put out an album of covers featuring total newbies like the Bee Gees or Leonard Cohen and entirely rewrite a Beatles song released that same year. Or how people like Joni Mitchell had two or three years of hits via covers before they put out their own music.
That’s what I was hoping to do with Let It Die, which was to remove Feist’s songwriting ego and focus on her being useful as a voice interpreting songs. That eventually led to her being able to write her own songs again. But when she was blocked, instinctually one of my solutions was to suggest to her that she’s putting the songwriter-as-artist thing on a pedestal, and she was feeling she wasn’t living up to it. So I said, ‘Maybe we’re attacking this the wrong way, and remove this from the equation rather than trying to find a new way to scale that mountain. Let’s bypass the mountain.’
As I think about this more, and writing the Enya book came at an interesting time, when shooting for  Shut Up and Play the Piano documentary had wrapped, as a postscript to everything that happens in the movie—the movie is about me getting away from constantly seeking attention at all costs, to then discovering there is this other side that people will appreciate through Solo Piano and then trying to harmonize all that. Starting the Enya book, along with the entire story of the movie and where I’m headed is: how can the ego find its proper place and not dominate, but be in harmony with the gods of music? It’s not realistic for me to entirely excise my ego from the equation, but if I can live in harmony with the gods of music, that would be wonderful.